ABOARD THE USS LAKE ERIE -- Approaching from the Hawaii coast, the mosquito-shaped helicopter buzzed around this guided-missile cruiser twice before swooping toward the landing pad. The Navy crew on the deck crouched, the helmeted faces betraying more than routine concern as the aircraft, flown by a pilot who had never before alighted upon a ship, hovered a foot off the tarmac and then set down with a thud.
Three words painted in black block letters on the drab olive fuselage prompted the sailors' worry: United States Army.
The Army, which fights on terra firma, does not usually land its helicopters on ships -- the domain of the Navy and Marine Corps -- but these are not usual times in the U.S. military.
As the Obama administration winds down the Army-centric war in Afghanistan, Pentagon leaders are seeking to place the Air Force, Navy and Marines in dominant roles to counter threats in the Asia-Pacific region, which they have deemed to be the nation's next big national security challenge.
Fearful that the new strategy will cut its share of the defense budget, the Army is launching an ambitious campaign to transform itself and assert its relevance in the Pacific. And that, in turn, is drawing the Army into a fight --with the Marines.
Calculating that there are only slim chances of the Army fighting a big land war anywhere in the Far East other than the Korean Peninsula, the new top Army commander in the Pacific, Gen. Vincent Brooks, wants his forces to more quickly and effectively respond to small conflicts, isolated acts of aggression and natural disasters.
But doing so has traditionally been a challenge for the Army, which bases most of its soldiers assigned to the Orient in Hawaii, Alaska and Washington state. To overcome what he calls "the tyranny of distance," Gen. Brooks is trying to make his forces more maritime and expeditionary.
To cut travel time and increase regional familiarity, he is seeking authorization to send key elements of a U.S.-based infantry brigade to Asia and keep them there for months at a time, moving every few weeks to different nations to conduct training exercises. The rotating deployment -- the first proposed increase in U.S. forces in Asia in years -- could enable the Army to move more speedily to address humanitarian crises and security threats.
The initiative, which Gen. Brooks is calling "Pacific Pathways," is an opportunity to recast the Army's image in Washington, yielding television images of soldiers -- not just Marines and sailors -- responding to typhoons and cyclones. "We can no longer afford to build [combat] units and put them on a shelf, to be used only in the event of war," Gen. Brooks's command wrote in an internal planning document.
To the Marine Corps, however, Gen. Brooks is committing the military equivalent of copyright infringement. Marines regard themselves as the nation's first -- and only -- maritime infantry force. They have troops in Asia not tied down in Korea -- three infantry battalions, an aviation wing and a full logistics group based on Japan's island of Okinawa -- and they have an expeditionary unit that sails around Asia to conduct bilateral exercises and respond to crises. Those Marines last month were among the first to respond to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.
"They're trying to create a second Marine Corps in the Pacific," said a Marine general, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss Army plans. "To save their budget, they want to build a force the nation doesn't need."